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AFRICANIZED HONEY BEES arrived in Honduras in 1985. Since then they have outmanoeuvred their transplanted and tropically-frail European cousins. Apiculture in Honduras has become a battle; men don their armour; their gloves, their veils, their suits; they pillage under cover of smoke; the bees sacrificed to a suicidal degree.
Here and there in the countryside a more harmonious relationship still exists between man and melliferous insect harmonious because the native bees of Central America are stingless. One of these is the Royal Mayan bee These stingless bees are Melipona beecheii, known by common names according to region: la abeja de la miel virgen (the bee of the virgin honey), el blanco del pais (the white countryman), and el jicote (the indigenous name). Most frequently it is called la blanca estrella (the white star) or simply la estrella (the star). It is slightly smaller than the Africanized honey bee, with a darker abdomen and a fuzzier thorax. Melipona beecheii colonies establish themselves in protected enclosures, usually hollow logs. Man has not changed this system; the logs are cut to a manageable size, then carried with the colony still inside to the "bee haver's" house. The open ends of the trunk are plugged, usually with a wooden block or a piece of pottery, then sealed with mud. They are then hung from nearby trees or the eaves of buildings. Often houses are completely encircled by these strange, mud-daubed trunks, some long and regular shaped, others bulging like beer barrels, others mis-shapen like crudely-hacked congo drums.
If the hives themselves intrigue, what goes on inside amazes. Melipona beecheii constructs combs of dark, sticky wax for the sole purpose of raising brood. No honey or pollen is stored in the cells of these wafer-shaped nurseries, which are stacked one on top of the other. Unlike other social insects, this bee does not feed its larva several times a day until the cell is capped. Instead it fills the cell with sufficient pollen and nectar for the larva's development, then seals the cell. As the larva develops into a pupa, a papery cocoon is formed inside the wax cell. On the day of emergence, worker bees cut away the wax capping to help the young bee out.
Honey and pollen are stored in wax pots on each side of the brood nest. The pots, which Hondurans call mazorcas (corn cobs), are attached to the wall of the hive and are sealed when full. As stores increase more pots are built until only a narrow crawl-way remains free for worker bee traffic.
The hive entrance is also small, just wide enough to admit one bee at a time The entrance is constantly guarded; the fuzzy head of a sentry can always be seen protruding from the tiny porthole. Wax is spread around the entrance in a star-shape, hence this bee's most common nickname, la estrella.
Such a tight hive is essential to the bee's survival where so many predators, such as ants, cockroaches, mites, toads, and wasps abound. The bee's only defence is its mild bite - a pinch of the minuscule jaws, that when inflicted on the back of a weathered hand barely registers as pain. Strategy compensates for lack of firepower; the resourceful estrella somehow knows to attack the tender lips, nostrils, eyelids and earlobes of its aggressor. The degree of defensiveness varies from one colony to the next; some are peaceful to the point of indifference, others loathsome in their own quiet way. "Some have given me a bit of trouble", says Mariano Bonilla, of El Porvenir, Comayagua, Honduras who owns 15 estrella hives. "But still, I prefer these stingless bees to the African honey bees. These bees can be robbed gently and only to a degree, but very rarely tampered with. Hence we call ourselves "bee havers" and not "beekeepers"."
To rob a hive one end of the trunk is lowered, the stopper removed, and a container is placed beneath to catch the honey that will soon flow. The internal workings of the hive now lay exposed. The scents of honey and undried pollen waft out from the opening, and the hum of surprised workers surges. The view is bizarre and never fails to draw a hesitant gasp from even the most experienced "bee havers": a tunnel of chocolate-coloured bulbs that glisten with honey and shimmer with the twitching of 50,000 nervous wings. With a splash of water, the "bee haver" drives the workers deep into the hive where they protect the brood, leaving the honey pots unguarded. Now, with his bare hands, he crushes the pots and scrapes out their horde. Into the pail below flows the amber stream of honey
News of a harvest (robbery) spreads quickly through rural villages Adults and children gather with their own bottles to collect honey, or simply drink it from teacups held beneath the dripping hive. Generally, the "bee haver' can sell all he can steal at twice the price of other honeys. And there are good reasons: the flavour is fruity and never strong, it has the viscosity of hot maple syrup, the colour of a fine beer and a reputation as a medical panacea.
TREAT WITH CARE
When the hubbub has finally ceased and the crowd has left the bee haver prepares to close the hive. He usually gathers the wax from the crushed pots and replaces it in the hive to be recycled by the bees. He then fits the wooden stopper back in the trunk and smears any cracks with mud After two weeks, he can rob the honey on the other side of the brood nest "You must not take all the honey at once, because the bees might starve or leave", says Mariano Bonilla. "You must treat them with care".
Depending on the weather, flowering season and colony strength, in central and western Honduras a Melipona beecneii colony can be robbed twice a month from December to mid-March. Although a colony rarely produces more than 15 kilograms of honey per season, if treated gently and not robbed too often, it rarely swarms and almost never absconds. They can be kept for generations.
80 YEAR OLD HIVE
One of Mariano Bonilla's hives has been productive for over 80 years. "I bought that colony when I was eleven years old for one lempira", he recalls. "I am 57 now It was a famous colony even then. The man who sold it to me had been taking honey from it for more than forty years. Wherever I have gone I have taken those bees with me. I cannot tell you how many bottles of honey I have taken from that hive. It has never failed me".
The Maya also found the estrella dependable: it was pollinating the local flora and satisfying the native sweet tooth when the temples of Copan were mere rockpiles. Estrella honey played an important part in religious festivals and the Mayan bee god was appropriated with sacrifices to ensure a large harvest Not a little of this bounty was allowed to ferment, creating mead, which the Mayans fortified with the alkaloid bark of the "balache" tree.
The Maya kept, or rather had, their stingless bees in hollow logs just as their descendants do today. Having these bees is therefore one of the few practices handed down from the ancients that has successfully resisted change and improvement.
The bee itself deserves credit Melipona beecheii is an intensely private insect. It seems to thrive only in the hollow logs. Its system of honey and pollen storage make adaptation to modern box hives nearly impossible Attempts by would-be beekeepers to increase the number of their hives by splitting the brood nest end, more often than not, in disaster.
Perhaps it is the duality of the bees' nature (and here I unrepentantly anthropomorphize) at once generous, or at least unbegrudging, while also reticent, clannish and secretive that beguiles their so-called masters and earns their respect.
Many look upon the estrella as the family pet. Mariano Bonilla built a small gallery to protect his bees from the rain and chooses to live only yards away to guard against thieves.
[Bees for Development Journal #25]